Minerva Nunez watches Venezuela's state television hours each day, waiting for the latest news about cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez.
The updates are often delivered by Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who Chavez anointed as his successor before leaving for Cuba and his fourth operation for cancer in the past 18 months.
"I don't trust Maduro, and I don't believe what he's telling us about the president," said Nuez, a 49-year-old nurse who has voted for Chavez in each of his four presidential runs. "He's just another politician out for his piece of the pie."
On Tuesday, Maduro told the Venezuelan Telesur television network that Chavez's condition is "delicate" three weeks after his cancer surgery.
"He's totally conscious of the complexity of his post-operative state and he expressly asked us ... to keep the nation informed always, always with the truth," Maduro said.
As Chavez loyalists worry that their hero may not return, his regime leaders face the dilemma of inheriting a socialist revolution whose strength is due largely to love for Chavez, not the regime.
Should Chavez die after 14 years in office, Maduro will have to convince Chavez's supporters that he is capable of carrying "Chavismo" beyond its personality cult foundation.
"Maduro would probably lose right now between 40% and 50% of the people who voted for Chavez in the October presidential elections," said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant.
Chavez, who hasn't been seen since Dec. 11, has been center stage in Venezuela's politics for 14 years. His claim to be the savior of the poor and folksy speaking style has inspired an almost messianic devotion massaged by the state-controlled media.
Maduro, 50, seems ill at ease in public. He has taken on a partisan tone in speeches as he tries to maintain unity among various factions in Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
"I have my doubts about whether Maduro can unite these diverse constituencies (in the PSUV) to the same degree as Chavez," said Nikolas Kozloff, an analyst and author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. "He is one of the working class, but I'm not sure he commands a lot of following within the armed forces."
Unlike Chavez, who was a former paratrooper and officer, Maduro has no military experience. He came to Chavez's attention when as a union leader he helped Chavez win release from prison following a coup attempt. He is close to Cuba's Castros, as is Chavez, and was named foreign minister after serving as president of the National Assembly.
Whether Maduro can step into the job is in question. Chavez's term ends Jan. 10, and the constitution says he must be sworn in to a new six-year term that day.
Failure to do so would prompt a call for the creation of a commission to determine whether Chavez is fit to serve. If he is found to be unfit for office, Maduro would take over temporarily until new elections could be held. If the finding comes after Jan. 10, the president of the National Assembly takes power until new elections can be held.
Some of the president's supporters have suggested that the inauguration be postponed. The country's opposition movement led by former governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez in October, says the proposal is unconstitutional. In any event, Capriles said he does not think Chavez's regime can survive the death of its leader.
"I have my doubts about Chavismo without Chavez," Capriles said in a recent interview with El Universal newspaper.
That may be a reason the government is reluctant to give details about Chavez's illness. The public has yet to be told what type of cancer he has or his prognosis, leading to rumors. Some Venezuelans believe that Chavez may have already died, while others say he is faking to get support.
"He could be pretending to be sick to get sympathy for his supporters and policies," said Javier Martinez, a 30-year-old industrial engineer.
Meanwhile, economic troubles are mounting. During the presidential campaign, Chavez ramped up social spending, depleting international reserves and widening the fiscal deficit. Imports have fallen, and people are seeing shortages of basic food items.
Venezuela's bolvar is now pegged at 4.3 to the dollar. A devaluation could take it to 8 to the dollar, making it easier to pay off international debts. The black market rate ranges from 15 to 20 bolvars for $1.
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